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Made-to-order books, 21st-century style

The IT Girl
|Written By Sarah Dale-Harris
Made-to-order books, 21st-century style

In my Christmas wish list, I mentioned a most amazing machine — the “espresso” machine. No, not the kind that makes coffee, the kind that can print a made-to-order softcover book. How incredible is it that one-off printing of paperbacks might be coming to a coffee shop near you? OK, maybe not a coffee shop, but possibly the corner bookstore you thought would never be able to keep up with the big-box retailers. The more I thought about the possibilities, the more intrigued I became, so I did a little more research.

Here’s how it works: PDF files are downloaded, files are sent, the machine goes to work, and a 250-page book can be printed and bound in about five minutes. No joke. That’s more or less it.

I did wonder about the glue these printers use. And no, I didn’t spend hours trying to find out. I do work for a living! I wondered though whether the binding is like the French books I used to buy. For whatever reason the glue was consistently of poor quality, the pages of my books would fall out, and the binding would come off. Anyway, whatever this glue that dries in a matter of seconds might be, these books cost about one cent per page to print. At the end of the run when pages are scored, the glue has been applied and set, and the edges are cut, out pops a book.

It looks kind of like a vending machine, only better: it produces food for your mind and has zero calories. Does it get any better? Don’t answer that. A picture is worth a thousand words, so watch it for yourself on YouTube. Pretty trick technology.

Although sales of online books for e-readers are rising, faithful readers of printed books continue to sustain the sale of “real” books. I, for one, love printed books. I have bookcases loaded with books that evidence my passion not just for the written word but for the beauty that is the incarnation of literary passion, sweat and toil upon each printed page.

So what of this notion of one-off printing of books? Arguably, there is still electricity, ink, glue, and paper (among other things) required — each of which we might prefer to do with less of as we try to protect the environment. The good news though is that there should be less waste. Made-to-order: that’s the beauty and the simplicity of it. The cost of publishing a book yourself (e.g. through a vanity press) is not inexpensive and it isn’t something many of us would consider doing, but each of us has an interesting story to tell and why shouldn’t it be printed — one book at a time?

Enter those who have embraced this technology, like the University of Toronto. Not only can you order books from a database of more than 4 million titles (including rare and out-of-print books), you can print the novel, thesis, journal — whatever — that you wrote for a one-time setup fee and about seven cents per page per book. The best part is you can print just one copy, so start writing!

The good news for retailers (for and not-for-profit) is that it reduces the need for inventory and for the space to warehouse such inventory, so the cost savings, notwithstanding the cost of the machine itself, should be measurable over time. Assuming you have some time. As for the holders, licensors, and licensees of copyright, the fees can be and are baked right into the license fee associated with the right to download and print each book and can be passed on to the consumer.  What about book pirates you ask? Let’s be honest — they’re books — not the latest never-been-seen-anywhere-else video game or movie, each at best worth about $20 for a softcover copy unless it happens to be an out-of-print book. Even so, for the cost of the machine, you might as well just steal and try to peddle the machine itself.

Practically speaking, the machine still costs too much (for now) for it to be a casual investment by the average consumer. At about $120,000 each, this kind of espresso machine won’t be coming home with me any time soon, but it could be coming to your local book store or print shop — if it isn’t there already.